Wednesday, May 27, 2015


It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas …

Christmas comes to South Africa mixed-up and turned upside-down, like water going down the plug in an anti-clockwise direction (it’s a metaphor, but for the literally-minded here’s a link about water direction). The crucified pine trees, optimistically decorated with tinsel and cotton wool to represent snow, drop their needles in defeat to the heavy summer sun. The ruddy faced or black supermarket Father Christmases seethe in their red-hot, hell-like outfits. Ovens heat the house to boiling point for the baking and roasting and stuffing of hams, lambs, chickens, pies and Christmas puddings. Non-sequitur songs about dashing through the snow are sung. The rich spend. The poor beg. And the heat simmers around you like a sacred cesspool.
As our girls were growing up we went home to South Africa for Christmas as often as we could. We left our winter coats and sweaters and socks and shoes in the car and covered the kids and ran into heated airports and hoped the flights weren’t delayed. The journey was door-to-door hell-to-hell—frozen winter to fiery summer, on-schedule feeds and sleeps to jet-lagged waking at 5 p.m. and waking again at midnight. It’s a difficult dichotomy: summer/ winter, day/night, excited/anxious.
But, too, at the end of the hellish journey to the past, there was family, my sisters, brother, their spouses and children, waiting with wide smiles and excited greetings. And, especially, there was my mother! Ah, it’s taken a while but now I understand the undertow of her smile. She was already thinking about our departure. It was the dichotomous smile of hello/goodbye.
And my father was there too, smiling and complaining about this noise or that. I took it for granted he would always be there. He was strong and healthy … nothing to worry about. My mother was the one we were worried about—her health was failing, her memory fading. After the short-short holiday when it was time to say goodbye, I thought I would never see her again. “Why does she have to go?” my bewildered mother asked my father. Never very demonstrative, he shook his head and walked away.
We got into my sister’s car to go to the airport and as we waved--a sacred, never-forgotten ritual now--I saw my father standing bowed, his face grim, his eyes filled with goodbye. I did see my mother again but that was the last time I saw my father. He died the following year after a short illness.
Today, as I plan a cross-country trip with my newly graduated daughter, Emma, toward my older daughter, Jackie, in Austin, it does feel a lot like Christmas. It’s hot, it’s fraught, it’s hello/goodbye.
And so, in this spirit, here is a perfect summer Christmas song by Tim Minchin for those of us who live hello/goodbye lives: “Drinking White Wine in the Sun”:
And if my baby girl
When you're twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You'll know whatever comes
Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
(p.s. I love the song and the humanist theme but I would definitely choose Tutu over Dawkins—no contest from this South African)


Monday, May 18, 2015

Dark Nights of the Soul Ramblings

I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’ve said.”
—The Bee Gees

In the book Humanism as the Next Step by Lloyd and Mary Morain, the use of the term “soul” in a humanist sense is described as a poetic metaphor. “Deep and important life-giving feelings are often spoken of as spiritual.” I like this view of the soul as a metaphor—not a separate, immortal essence but the collective consciousness of nature and nurture, genetics and epigenetics, zeitgeist and environment.

Whether you think of the soul in the traditional religious sense of one’s immortal spirit or in a humanist context, a dark night of the soul is a time of trauma when sleep is interrupted by nightmares and sobbing, and the waking will trembles while the body stiffens and cracks. It is a natural disaster of the spirit—a tsunami of sorrow, terror, anger, hopelessness. It is the Bee Gees song of powerlessness and alienation:
I started a joke; it started the whole world crying
oh if I’d only seen, that the joke was on me.

I’ve had the book Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore on my bookshelf for years and finally cracked it open a few days ago. It was alive!

Moore speaks about a dark night being symbolized by the ocean and the biblical story of Jonah’s journey inside the whale. He says an artist attempting to work through a dark night is drawn to recreate the treacherous night sea journey. I have found this to be true. I am a child of two oceans, the Atlantic and Indian, and I have found them featuring in every aspect of my pathetic attempts to create over the past year as I’ve struggled with my own dark night of the soul.

Last year in Cape Town, a woman challenged me: How will you help sixteen children from the squatter camp Masiphumelele in Kommetjie? Like Jonah, I was afraid of the call to duty. Instead of jumping to action, I spent the rest of the day searching for sea glass on the beach. Instead of finding polished gems, I left the beach with crappy pieces of broken glass bottles in hand. On my way to the car, another woman asked me if I’d seen the whale that had been swimming in the bay. No, actually I hadn’t. Now I realize the symbolism and the message in the glass bottles: Of course I couldn’t see the whale, I was already hiding inside the belly of the beast.

The poet Doug D’Elia wrote a poem about sea glass which ends:
while we ask, what took you so long?
Our trailing footprints washed
quickly out to sea

This poem reminds me to hurry—my footprints are about to be erased; Moore says wait:
“if your dark night is one of pregnancy and oceanic return, you could react accordingly and be still. Watch and wonder. Take the human embryo as your model. Assume the fetal position, emotionally and intellectually. Be silent. Float in your darkness as if it were the waters of the womb, and give up trying to fight your way out or make sense of it.”

How can I help sixteen children of Masiphumelele? I don’t know.